Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz are among the most recognizable pieces of movie memorabilia — but for years, they had vanished. With the classic family film turning 80 on Sunday, here’s a look back at the footwear’s journey from lost to found.
In 2005, the Judy Garland Museum in the actress’ birthplace of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, displayed the “traveling pair” of ruby slippers — one of the few pairs once worn by Garland — at its annual Wizard of Oz festival. The museum borrowed the costume pieces from Michael Shaw, a movie memorabilia collector in California.
A thief smashed the glass and stole the slippers from their case one night, after breaking in through the museum’s back door. A 2016 documentary, The Slippers, noted that Shaw declined to have the slippers stored in a vault at night, worried about having too many people handling the prized pieces. But he added, “Most importantly, I was assured the museum had security.”
Police said at the time that no alarm sounded from the break-in or theft, and the perpetrator left no fingerprints. The slippers had been insured for $1 million, but their true value, according to CNN last year, lies between $2-$3 million — or upwards of $5 million at auction.
The museum, for its part, was crushed. “We were literally crying,” cofounder Jon Miner told local CNN affiliate KQDS in 2015.
For over a decade, the slippers remained lost. Then in 2017, the Grand Rapids Police Department got the FBI involved in the case, after a tip came forward that turned into a potential case of extortion. The FBI put its Art Crime team, FBI Laboratory, and Chicago, Miami and Atlanta offices on the case, and eventually got the slippers back from a recovery operation in Minneapolis.
The slippers may have returned, but the work was far from over.
FBI agents in Minneapolis brought the shoes to the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., which has had its own pair from the film on display since 1979. (The museum took its slippers down in April 2017 to do preservation work, before putting them back on display last October.) Dawn Wallace, a conservator at the museum who spent years preserving its own set, compared the recovered slippers to the copy to ensure they were from the movie.
She not only discovered they were but that the Smithsonian’s right shoe paired with the left from the recovered pair — and vice versa! Curator Ryan Lintelman told the FBI this happened often with costumes, because sets tended to create copies of the same pieces. He guessed there might have been at least six pairs of ruby slippers made for the movie.
Another pair currently resides in the ownership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization responsible for the Oscars. They were bought for $2 million at auction in 2012 with help from a group of industry insiders, chiefly Leonardo DiCaprio. At one point, famed costumer Kent Warner owned that pair, before he sold them in 1981. (He may still own another, according to the Smithsonian; yet another pair he sold in 1970 later became the Smithsonian’s pair after the buyer anonymously donated them in 1979.) They’ll go on display when the Academy opens the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which was originally set for 2017.
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An anonymous memorabilia collector owns yet another pair, which hasn’t been seen in public since 2000, according to the Smithsonian. They were bought at auction in 1988, when Roberta Bauman finally sold the shoes, which she had won from MGM Studios in a National Four Star Club contest to name “The 10 Best Films of 1939,” for $165,000. (Bauman, 16 at the time in 1940, got second place.)
Debbie Reynolds also owned a pair for a while: the famed “Arabian test pair,” known for its unique, flamboyant appearance compared to the other, simpler pairs. A designer created the slippers for test shots, but Wizard of Oz director Victor Fleming eventually opted for the more toned down pairs. According to Footwear News, she bought the shoes for $300 and later sold them for $690,000 in 2011.
The lost pair of ruby slippers may have safely returned, but the Grand Rapids police and FBI haven’t yet charged a suspect in the case. Importantly, though, the slippers are back.
“Recovering a cultural item of this importance is significant,” FBI agent Chris Dudley said announcing the return of the shoes. “So many people of all ages around the world have seen The Wizard of Oz and in that way have some connection to the slippers. That’s one of the things that makes this case resonate with so many.”
Or, perhaps put better by John Kelsch, executive director of the Judy Garland Museum, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2016: “France has the Mona Lisa. America has The Wizard of Oz. It’s our national masterpiece, so much a part of the American experience.”